Nature's Spring Fling
Who among us, does not have a soft spot for certain spring time flowers, a special garden path, or tree?The month of March brings on nature’s ever popular spring fling, prompting visits to local garden nurseries, garden centers, while garden seed catalogs start to over stuff our mail boxes and inboxes. Now, more than any other time of the year, it’s a glorious time for renewal of “the dream.”
Early spring, is a time when every gardener around the world dreams the same dream — of warmth filled days, and the joy of seeing first new leaves and flowers emerging, showing us green and color to ease us out of our wintertime doldrums. There in those visual moments, springs forth visions of a lovely garden, even if it only exists in our minds or memories due to space, time constraints, or life circumstances. Lovely gardens are some of the most phenomenal of places, where inspiration begins in the human heart and mind. We each deserve and need a lovely garden in our lives.
Today, I’m sitting here on a fine spring day, looking at the great glossy green arrow-shaped leaves of the perennial cuckoo-pint plant, that has broken through the earth in one of my gardens. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this unique perennial plant, I should note here, that there is an old English explanation for the cuckoo-pint name, that I’ll leave out of this discussion.
What I will tell you is that at first, the plant is rolled up, but soon expanding, and then many of it’s companions will be showing delightful amethyst black blotches. The plant’s scientific name is Arismaema, which in Latin, means “bloody arm,” and refers to the dark purple stains of the spathe. It appears even in climates where snow is still, perhaps, on the ground, as one of the first reminders of the promise of spring.
It is far more important to know that this unique early spring reminder of how lovely a garden can be, was like all plants, once wild. It commonly grew in wooded areas and along shaded ditches, especially wherever the soil had a heavy limestone content.
Lords and Ladies
Old master gardeners of times past, had a popular well-worn legend that claimed at the time of the Crucifixion:
Beneath the cross it grew,
And the vase-like hollow of the leaf,
Catching from that dream shower of agony
A few mysterious drops, transmitted thus
Unto the groves and hills their healing strains
A heritage for storm or vernal shower
Never to blow away
Now, the plant has other common names, like Lord’s and Ladies, Wild Arum
and Wake-robin. It’s closely related to our American Jack-in-the-pulpit, but more likely to be found in European gardens. Among some garden circles, the race to come up with the “perfect” and most “lovely” of the various members of the cultivated members of this wild arum plant family is a prize to be coveted. This has a lot to do with cultivating distinctive and astounding leaf patterns, along with the fact, that it can be grown as a showy potted plant.
It is not until late in March or early in April, that the pale yellow-green hoods come up and open their fronds, revealing the purplish poker-like pin. Most people regard this hood as the flower of the cuckoo-pint, but it is really only an outside covering. If we were to tear it carefully aside, we would find that the real flowers, in great numbers, are clustered around the lower part of the pin.
As a perennial plant, it grows from a tuber underground. In autumn, it produces a unique cluster of reddish-orange berries that are grouped together at the top of an upright stem. However, looking closer at the hood, we would also see that it has sort of a waist, which divides the open upper part from the closed lower part, and inside, the two parts are farther separated by a fringe of hairs standing out from the pin, or pintle, as it is named.
The real flowers are below these hairs, very small, and without either sepals or petals. First there is a crowded band of stamens, and below these, a similar band of crowded pistils. The hairs of the fringe above them all bend slightly downward. The pistils are mature before the stamens are ready to shed their pollen.
Those who have carefully studied the plant and its peculiarities, tell us that when the pistils are ready, the cuckoo-pint sends forth an unpleasant odor, which is attractive to certain small insects that fly to it, and seeing the purple pintle, think it is something in which they can lay their eggs.
Finding their mistake, the insects follow the scent to the lower part of the hood. The fringe of hairs bends to let them pass, but springs back at once to shut them in, for the hairs will not bend upward. Later, when autumn comes, we see the result of the work of these little insects in the bright red berries clustered around the remains of the pintle.
The most popular varieties of this curious plant in nature’s early spring fling of color, are the Italian perennial plant members — the Arum italicum. If you live in a warmer climate, as I do here in the south, it can be considered by some to be invasive, if not managed properly. This has to do more with the fact that small mammals and birds are known to distribute the seeds.
Some gardeners will, especially in mild climates, control it by under planting hosta. When the leaves of the hosta plants die down in autumn, while the leaves of the Italian cuckoo-pint replace it. By summer, the Italian Cuckoo-pint’s foliage withdraws and is traded to shoots of ginger seeds that appear to be from the up-and-coming from the hosta plant.
It’s that bright carroty fact, that gives added color aspect to an otherwise boring green ground cover, that makes it in my opinion — a desirable plant for any lovely garden.
Warning: Wild arum is poisonous if used incorrectly and it is better to stay away from contact with it and always wear gloves when planting the tubers. The roots were more commonly used as a source of starch for clothing, even though the toxic juice left the unfortunate laundresses’ hands terribly blistered.